STANWOOD — Under a microscope, their cells didn’t fight.
That made Carrie Westvang a match for her husband, Robb. Not only for love, but for life.
She was compatible to give him a kidney in a transplant operation in March at the University of Washington Medical Center.
It was the second transplant for Robb, 49, who received a kidney from his mom in 1996. That kidney was deteriorating and he had been on the waiting list for a replacement for the last four years and on dialysis for a year. It took a toll on his health.
“His face was gray,” said Carrie, 48. “He was so tired.”
She had seen firsthand the wonders of a kidney transplant.
“When we were dating 23 years ago he went to a kidney center (for dialysis) and I would go visit him,” she said.
The couple have been married for 21 years. They have three coffee stands and two daughters together.
Robb has glomerulonephritis, an inflammation of the tiny filters of the kidneys. His mom’s kidney from 23 years ago was failing, as expected. Kidneys from living donors function optimally an average of 18 years, said UW transplant surgeon Dr. Stephen Rayhill.
Robb did in-home dialysis this time. It fit better into family life, but was a temporary fix.
“Dialysis is not a real kidney. It is like 10 percent of a kidney and it doesn’t do a lot of things kidneys do,” Rayhill said. “A kidney transplant is a life-saving transplant.”
Rayhill said it is common for couples to donate to each other, if possible. In cases of incompatibility, there are exchange and chain programs to pair donors with others seeking kidneys to find a match so all parties of loved ones benefit.
Some people donate to strangers for altruistic reasons.
“A lot of times the donors benefit from the psychological value,” Rayhill said. “It’s a mutually beneficial thing, but it’s a life-saving thing for the recipient.”
According to the Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network, there were 21,167 kidney transplants in 2018. It is the most common organ transplant.
Most people can function with one healthy kidney, so they have an extra to offer up.
Carrie was a match for Robb, even though they have different blood types. It also was trickier for Robb this time around because of the antibodies he built up from the first transplant.
“They put your cells into a little dish and if they fight you are not compatible,” she said.
His antibodies accepted her cells.
“Her husband had no immunological enemies against her cells,” said Rayhill, who was her transplant surgeon.
The couple had his-and-her surgeons. Transplant operations take between four and five hours.
Carrie underwent donor screening last summer. “In the fall, they called and said, ‘You’re a match,’” she said.
Still, they were hopeful another kidney would be available so both wouldn’t be out of commission. Their children, Taylor, 10, and Riley, 13, keep them on the go. The couple work together and have 23 employees.
“Taking time off together is hard,” Carrie said.
They opened their first Locals Espresso stand in Marysville in 1997.
“We dumped every penny and jacked up our credit cards,” she said. “We didn’t have enough money to put product on the shelf. So I went to one of those quick loan places and got a $2,000 loan with 24-percent interest.”
They have since expanded, with stands in Stanwood and Arlington. It’s a hands-on business, open 365 days a year.
The transplant entailed a hospital stay, three-week recovery and restrictions, such as not lifting more than 10 pounds for several months.
The couple credit the support of family members and employees with taking care of them and flawlessly running their business. “They handled everything,” Carrie said.
It was the second major operation for both of them. Carrie had open-heart surgery at age 23 to repair a congenital defect.
“I knew what I was getting myself into,” she said of the transplant.
After a year of being ill, Robb said he knew right away the new kidney was a success.
“I woke up and felt pretty good. Later on that next day I was sitting up and watching TV and eating,” he said. “Carrie was in the other room just trying to get Jell-O down.”
She looks forward to playing soccer in the fall. She had to temporarily stop playing contact sports — doctor’s orders.
Giving up soccer was the hardest part of giving up a kidney, she said.
Does she ever hold it over his head?
Sometimes, such as if he strays from the healthy diet she follows.
“I say, ‘You better take care of that kidney,’ ” she said.
According to the U.S. Organ Donation and Transplantation, there are more than 113,000 people on the waiting list for organ transplants. Each day, 20 people die waiting for a transplant.
Learn more about organ donation at www.organdonor.gov and www.uwmedicine.org/services/transplant/kidney-transplant.